You take the pills to keep them away.
That’s what we were told when we were first brought down here–down through the sterile white halls with their flickering fluorescent lights, and our small, Spartan cells. Down into the nightmare.
Why would we agree to this?
I was tired of being homeless. I was tired of smelling like urine. I was tired of the looks that people gave me, like they knew I was there, but if they could just avoid eye contact maybe I wouldn’t talk to them, wouldn’t show up later, in their dreams, tugging at their consciences. I was tired of sleeping on cold concrete every night.
I was tired of being so fucking hungry all the time.
The man in the suit had come with his pretty white teeth and his expensive sunglasses, asking for volunteers. Medical trials, he said. I know, a scary movie waiting to happen, right? But when he promised full meals and warm beds, how could we pass that up?
Being homeless, your life is a scary movie. You sleep in the alleys normal people refuse to walk down, hurrying by in case whatever is lurking in there reaches out and grabs them. You wait until the gangbangers and the prostitutes and the pimps and the junkies all pack it in for the day before you dare shut your eyes, and even then you aren’t sure you’ll ever open them again.
Now I lay me down to sleep, and all that bullshit.
On any given day, you don’t know what might get you: the knife of some strung out hophead, a stray bullet from a drive-by, the cold, the hunger.
So when Mr. Fancy Suit–he never did give us his name–came along with his bright smile and his promises of food and beds, I couldn’t hop in the van fast enough. I didn’t care if this was the beginning of a real life horror flick—it couldn’t be any worse than what I lived every day, right?
There were seven of us in the back of the white van. We were clearly picked off of the streets; you could smell the desperation in the thick air—piss and sweat. We sat, hunched, quiet, our eyes taking each other in as the bumps in the road jostled us, our heads bobbling with each jolt. It was like in the movies when you see a bunch of soldiers in the belly of some plane, getting ready to parachute into a hot zone. Everyone’s just quiet, and waiting for whatever the hell is coming next, and hoping it doesn’t end in a body bag.
The van didn’t have windows, and there was a solid divider between us and the cab, so we didn’t know where we were being taken. If we thought we would find out once we got to our destination, we were wrong.
After a couple of hours in the van, the back doors swung open to reveal a giant bay, like a hangar, constructed of corrugated metal. One part warehouse, one part garage, one part I don’t know, it was filled with shelves stacked with boxes, big, silver, industrial piping with valve handwheels the size of a bus steering wheel, and half a dozen more white vans.
The bay doors, like oversized garage doors, were already shut. There were no signs, no clue as to the identity of our hosts.
Even the man with the bright smile and fancy suit was gone.
Instead, we were greeted by a younger kid—like he was straight out of college—with sandy hair, thick glasses, and a clipboard. He barely looked up at us as he said, “Okay, if you’ll follow me, we’ll get you guys processed.”
The college kid—he also didn’t introduce himself—shuttled us from place to place for the next few hours without saying much beyond giving us basic instructions. White hallways with waxed floors and fluorescent lights took us from one room to the next, where college boy would tell us what we were supposed to do and make a little tick on his clipboard.
We were allowed showers, with hot water and real soap—name brands; I can’t remember the last time I had a shower with the good stuff. When I stepped out of the shower, I found my old clothes had been taken away, replaced by a set of crisp white coveralls and white shoes with crepe soles. That was followed by a physical given by an old doctor with yellow teeth and a bad smell like fermenting cheese. Lunch. Haircuts.
I was both excited and terrified. The shower felt amazing, and the lunch, though a simple sandwich and carrot sticks, was good—the best meal I had in a while. After living on the streets, this was luxury. And according to the smiling suit, I had a couple of months of this to look forward to. But why were we here? What were they going to do to us? By the time we had a contract and pen quietly shoved toward us, we still hadn’t seen a single sign of who exactly was running the show.
Even the contracts didn’t name our hosts.
A third man, this one older with salt and pepper hair, came along in a sharp, brown suit that may as well have had lawyer embroidered on it. He read the contract, taking care to refer to our hosts without actually identifying them. They were always “the benefactor,” or “the company.” He told us we were to be paid for our services, two hundred dollars a week, and they were responsible for our food and lodging for the duration of the test.
My whole body clenched with apprehension when the lawyer explained that “the company” would cover all burial and funeral costs in the case of incidental death. I looked around at the rest of my new companions. Most didn’t even seem to notice, though Alfonse, a tall, rail thin black man with three missing teeth, gawked at the lawyer with wide yellowed eyes.
My apprehension deepened when the lawyer explained that by participating in the experiments, we waived all rights to sue or seek compensation the company for any wrongdoing whatsoever.
What in the hell was I getting myself into? Unnamed fear ran through me, but it met with the fresh haircut and the clean clothes and full stomach and there was a struggle. I could feel myself lift out of my seat, say all bets were off, that I’ll take the street over incidental death.
Now, as I crouch behind this locked door, scribbling away what may be the last words of my life and counting my last few pills, I wish I had.
But I didn’t. The fear subsided. I was going to be given a real bed, and clean clothes and food. Besides, I told myself, that’s probably just the boilerplate stuff that never really gets used. So, as the chorus of pens scratching on paper rose around me, I took up the cheap ballpoint, scribbled my name where the lawyer indicated, and slid the contract across the table.
Like a magic trick, the lawyer disappeared and was replaced by college boy, whose eyes were now glued to the bottom of the clipboard.
He guided us to an elevator with only two buttons and hit the down arrow. There was a lurch followed by that brief moment of weightlessness you feel going down in an elevator.
As we sank, one of us finally spoke up.
“So what’s the deal? What are we gonna be doing? Where are we?” asked a short man with a deep tan and heavy lines etched into his face. Later, I would learn his name was Billy.
College boy didn’t look up from his clipboard when he replied. “All of your questions will be answered soon,” he said. Then he looked up and added, “Well, some of them anyway.”
With that, our group reverted to silence, the only sound the steady droning hum of the elevator as we continued to descend. Goose bumps rose on my flesh as we dropped—it seemed to be getting darker as we neared our final destination. I knew this couldn’t be the case, as the elevator was lit with the same fluorescent lights that illuminated the hallways above us, and they didn’t even flicker. All the same, I could feel the darkness in my skin, like some extra sense could detect that we were being swallowed up by the earth, as the sun disappeared above us.
Now, I’m not a claustrophobe. Never have been, and when you are homeless, you come to find small, enclosed spaces to be a blessing rather than a curse. But when those elevator doors finally opened, I exhaled and rushed out as fast as I could, the oppressive atmosphere of the elevator sliding off of my shoulders as I did.
I stepped into a room full of black instruments and glowing blue monitors. Overhead, more fluorescent lights cast a silvery glow over everything, giving the room the feel of a bright, moon-lit night. Waiting for us were three people in long white coats, each of them giving us broad, welcoming smiles.
I was struck instantly with just how beautiful all of them were. A tall, lean man with perfectly sculpted dirty blond hair; a short, petite woman with slick black hair and creamy green eyes; and an older silver haired man who looked less like a scientist and more like an aging actor. He’d have looked just as natural in a tuxedo with some twenty-something ingénue on his arm at the Oscars.
It was this older man who spoke once all eight of us were out of the elevator. “On behalf of my colleagues, I’d like to welcome you, and thank you for your contributions to our research and to science for the greater good,” he said through his broad smile, his arms outstretched.
“These are my colleagues, Dr. Vorhauer,” he continued, motioning to the tall man, “and Dr. Brun. I am Dr. Bell.”
Dr. Brun stepped forward. She was gorgeous; the way her hair spilled over her shoulders, the cool, mesmerizing color of her eyes, even the way her lab coat pinched in at the waist, hinting at finely molded curves. Looking at her was like looking at a being from a world entirely different than the one I was used to—beautiful, flawless, and alien.
“While you are here, your primary goal is to take these pills.” she said. “You take the pills to keep them away.” Her small hand held out several little white pills that looked like Tic-Tacs.
“Uh, keep what away?” I interrupted. Them. It was a word that shattered whatever spell her beauty cast upon me. It didn’t matter that the word came from her bow shaped lips, wrapped in her soft, musical voice. (It’s a little thick.) There was something horrifying about it, something that triggered something primal within me.
She flashed me a smile, her eyes crinkling up at the corners. “Unfortunately, we can’t divulge that information at this time. All you are required to know is that if you take the pills when they are offered, you will keep them away.”
This answer did nothing to ease my fears, and after a quick look around at the rest of my companions, I could see the unease on their faces as well. Dr. Vorhauer cut in, “I can see that you are concerned. All we can say is that at this time you are free to go, but upon doing so, you forfeit your right to the pay and accommodations this experiment will afford you, and we do expect to be reimbursed for the services already provided to you today.”
“And very good accommodations they are,” Dr. Bell chimed in cheerily. He looked like a grandparent watching a kid about to open their present on Christmas Day, like he couldn’t wait to see how pleased we were all going to be.
The fear was still simmering, thick and tangible in the recesses of my mind, but the idea that I would have to pay them back for their “services” was more urgent. How much would that be? The food would be cheap, but a physical? Did that mean they would charge us for the lawyer and the gas money too?
I wasn’t the only one trying to do that bit of impossible math in my head. Without a word, as a group, we must have signaled that we were defeated. Dr. Brun started speaking again.
“Starting tomorrow morning, you take the pills when they are offered, and that is it. We aren’t asking you to perform any special tests, you aren’t on any special schedules other than normal meal times. You are free to do what you like with the time you spend here. You will each be given your own room and restroom facilities. We also have a common room with several amenities, a gym if you’d like exercise, and a cafeteria where you will take all of your meals.”
Billy raised his hand. “Excuse me, mi… I mean Doctor. Is there anywhere to smoke around here?”
“I’m sorry,” Dr. Brun said. Her face darkened before finally settling on a sympathetic look. “We do ask that all participants refrain from smoking for the duration of the experimentation process. We do, however, have a number of cessation aids to help you, if you would like.”
“Before you’re shown to your quarters, are there any other questions?” Dr. Bell asked.
A wrinkled old woman named Carly raised her hand this time. “How long will this last?”
Dr. Vonhauer addressed her. “We are slated for six weeks, but that is dependent upon the amount of data we are able to collect. If we get what we need, this can be over in as little as two weeks. It may go longer.”
“If the trial does need to be extended, you will of course be consulted, and new contracts will be drawn up,” Dr. Bell added.
With that, the introduction was over. We had no more questions. Really, we were a bunch of homeless people; it wasn’t in our nature to ask questions. We’d been kicked around by life, and gotten on by instinct for so long that the idea of asking for things wasn’t in our programming. Now, as I write this, I wonder if things might have been different if we did ask more questions, if we looked a little deeper into the price tag for this thing.
Maybe there wouldn’t have been so much death.
Maybe it was already too late.
In any case, the first few days were pretty good, with few hints at the nightmare that would follow. We got to know our new home. Our rooms were small, with only a bed, a desk, and a bathroom, but they were clean. More importantly, they were ours. The common room staved off boredom with TVs and video games and a decent miniature library. Even the gym was nice, with plenty of equipment, though it did strike me funny that there were no weights.
We learned about each other, too, telling our stories over the meals served in the cafeteria.
The meals themselves were surprisingly good. I could tell it was health nut food, all vegetables and fruits and stuff. In three days we weren’t served a single bite of meat, prompting Frank, a chubby little man with gravel for a voice and a dust mop for hair, to groan, “How the hell are we supposed to live on this shit?”
But meal time was when all seven of us were together. It’s funny. If you’ve never been homeless, you probably think we’re all bums, that we are leeches on society looking for a handout. Most people think if someone’s homeless, it’s probably their fault. Sometimes it is. But it’s almost always more complicated than that.
Like Billy, who’d worked twenty years at the old steel mill before it closed its doors forever. Alfonse was laid off. Carly’s husband beat and raped her nearly every night of their fifteen year long marriage. Without a high school diploma, Carly had no way to support herself. She stayed, enduring the abuse until one night her husband came after her with a butcher knife. She had no money, no skills, and no family to take her in. Pedro was an illegal trying to work to bring his family over, and Frank, well, Frank really did just drink his way out of a good job and out onto the streets.
Then there was Amy. Pink haired, covered in tattoos, and barely old enough to vote, Amy’s stepfather molested her at the age of twelve. By fourteen, she had run off with a boyfriend ten years older than she was. He got her hooked on meth before he was shot to death in a drug deal.
The point is, I guess, that we were all long time tenants of hell. By comparison, the compound was like a dream. Maybe that’s why we were picked, because we would be so grateful for what we were being given that we wouldn’t be put off by the curious diet or the gym with no weights, or the blindingly white corridors. We were too drunk on food and shelter to wonder why we hardly saw the three doctors. When we did, they always gave us these strange, glassy, emotionless smiles.
I think it was the fourth day when things started to get strange. We’d sat down to breakfast—oatmeal and fresh fruit—when it became apparent that someone was missing.
“Where’s Alfonse?” I asked.
Looking around, I was met with gazes that hid to varying degrees a guided kind of fear. I could feel it too. Was the real experiment finally beginning? Was this how our mornings would go from now on—wake up and someone is missing until that someone is us?
“Ah, he’s probably just taking a good dump,” Billy grunted. “I gotta tell you, I’ve been dropping some pretty healthy kids off at the pool since we got here.”
“Gross,” Amy said, her nose crinkling.
“It’s true,” Billy said plaintively.
“Maybe they got him,” Frank said without bothering to look up.
“Huh?” I said.
“C’mon. Who would give a bunch of bums like us the good life like this, right?” he said. “Face it, kids, you enjoyed the gravy train for a few days, but we’re about to pull into the station. Last stop.”
The words “last stop” carried a leaden, dark feel with them, nestling in my mind and worrying away at the sense of comfort and security I had started to develop towards my new surroundings. Again, looking at my companions around the table, I could tell they felt it too.
I’d begun to imagine all of the things they might have done to Alfonse. Maybe they yanked him from his bed in the middle of the night, strapped him to a stainless steel table, the entire room drenched in thick, heavy shadow, the only light a naked bulb above that sent its sickening yellow glow dancing on the sharp edges of unnamed instruments. I could see faces behind face masks looming over his long thin frame, studying him coldly as their tools of torture neared his exposed skin. I could almost feel that odd mixture of heat and cold as the metal first pressed and then began to penetrate…
“Hey,” Alfonse said as he stepped through the cafeteria door. Relief overtook me as I could feel the adrenaline drain from my system, leaving behind its invoice of shaking limbs and gulping lungs. I was being silly, of course.
“Hey buddy, we was just talkin’ about ya!” Billy said, scooting over to give the big man some room.
I was so relieved to see Alfonse here, healthy and alive and not being tortured, that at first I missed the worried look on his face. It wasn’t until he spoke that I realized that the man was genuinely spooked.
“Did you guys get your pill today?” he asked.
“Of course,” I said. “What? You didn’t?”
Slowly, Alfonse shook his head, his yellowed eyes wide and nervous. “Nah, man.”
I shrugged. “Don’t worry about it. It’s probably just part of the experiment.” Even as I heard the words come out of my mouth, though, Dr. Brun’s words rang in my head.
“You take the pills to keep them away.”
Fear trilled through the faces of my companions at this revelation, yet no one said anything. Almost as though not talking about our terror might somehow make it go away, we spent the rest of breakfast talking about anything but the ominous instructions given by Dr. Brun.
Breakfast over, the seven of us went about our day. It’s odd how quickly you can form a routine, even in the strangest of conditions. We’d only been at the compound for four days and I could already predict where everyone would go after our morning meal.
Carly curled up in the library section of the common room as she read one of those novels that usually have a statuesque, half-naked couple on the verge of making love on the cover. Frank and Billy watched an old movie on one of the common room TVs. Pedro would be working out, and Alfonse…
Usually Alfonse took up one of the desktop computers, headphones on, playing some vintage video game or something. But today his usual spot in the common room remained vacant.
I didn’t pay this any mind, as my usual post breakfast spot was sitting next to Amy as we played video games. She had won eight races in a row on Mario Kart when I threw my controller down in mock disgust.
“I’m going to work out,” I sniffed.
“You mad bro?” she teased.
“I’m not bad??, ‘bro.’ You cheated. I would have won those if you had played fair.”
“How did I cheat?” she said, indignant.
I almost told her she was cheating by looking so pretty all the time. I had started to develop a little crush on her. But, not wanting to seem like a creeper, I simply said, “You must have rigged my controller. That’s the only way I can explain it.”
“Right,” she placated me. “It was all the controller. Go work out, and when you’re done, you may want to try practicing unless you want me to humiliate you after lunch.”
“I was thinking Street Fighter, after lunch,” I said.
“Oh no, no more Street Fighter,” she growled.
“Why’s that?” I said innocently.
“You cheat!” she snapped.
Laughing, I left the common room. I strolled down the white, unmarked hallways toward the gym. I wasn’t sure if there really was a romance budding between Amy and me, or if she just liked hanging out with me because I was the only one in our group within ten years of her age. Whatever the case, being around her had the effect of making me feel fuzzy, almost high.
Something about the cold hallways of the compound had a way of sucking the happiness from me, though.
I was about to round the last left turn before the gym when I felt a hand reach out and clamp down on my bicep.
“Hey man,” Alfonse whispered.
“Holy sweet Jesus!” I jumped. “You scared the fuck out of me, man!”
“Listen,” he whispered. Alfonse’s big yellow eyes were wide open, jerking all over the place as beads of sweat sprouted and tentatively traced their way down his forehead. “I’m seeing shit. Strange shit.”
“Whoa, whoa, Alfonse, calm down,” I said as I placed a hand on his shoulder. “It’s all right. Everything’s fine. Just relax,” I cooed in what I hoped was a comforting voice. The thing was, even in that stark white hallway, I didn’t really believe what I was saying.
Not deep down.
“The shadows, man. They’re moving.”
“What shadows?” I asked. Instinctively, I looked around. There were no shadows, the entire hallway bathed in the white, soulless light of the overhead fluorescent bulbs. It dawned on me then that there were hardly any shadows anywhere in the complex. All of the common areas, including the halls, were bathed in thick, omnipresent, white light. Only our rooms seemed to escape the all-encompassing glare, and even then only after bedtime.
“THE shadows!” Alfonse insisted. “Everywhere, shadows everywhere, they’re fucking moving!”
“Shadows don’t move,” I soothed.
“Then there’s something in them,” he protested. “Look, man. I know what I’m seeing. There is something moving. There’s something down here with us, and we can’t see it if we’re taking the pills.”
“This is crazy,” I breathed. “You need to relax. You’re probably just freaking out because they skipped your pill today. Take a breath and calm down.”
“I can’t calm down…”
“Alfonse!” I snapped. Something, maybe the volume, maybe the way I squeezed his shoulder, seemed to focus Alfonse. His eyes stopped darting from one place to another, and he looked at me for the first time since grabbing me and yanking me aside. “Listen. You’re going to be okay. All right? Let’s get you to the common room, and maybe just hanging out with other people will do you some good. Deal?”
Alfonse looked down at his shoes and shook his head. “Yeah. All right. You’re probably right. Place got me all fucked up in the head, you know? My momma told me not to trust people that just hand shit out. She said everyone’s in it for themselves. You know what I’m sayin’?”
“Come on,” I said. “Been through the same shit. Of course I know what you’re sayin’.”
I walked Alfonse to the common room, and after sitting him next to Frank and Billy, went over and told Amy what had happened.
“Keep an eye on him, okay?” I asked.
“What are you going to do?” she said.
“Nothing. I’m just saying, Alfonse shouldn’t be alone today.”
“Yeah,” she nodded. “You’re right.”
For the rest of the day, Alfonse was shifty and nervous. Unless he was actively engaged in something, he would look over his shoulder or stare into the corners of the room. But at least he stopped talking about the shadows.
Shadows that didn’t exist.
The next morning, I grabbed my breakfast from the counter. It was odd how we never saw any staff, I realized. Every time we came in for a meal, the food would be sitting there in a buffet style tray, but we never saw anyone change them out. Every time I got undressed and showered at night, my dirty clothes would be whisked away and replaced with a fresh set by the time I was done.
This was just another oddity of our new habitat, one that I’m thinking our hosts weren’t counting on us to notice. To a degree, they were right. As I sat down to bagels and a fruit salad, I realized I was holding my breath as the rest of my companions filed in.
It wasn’t until Alfonse arrived with a smile on his face that I finally exhaled.
“I guess your pill came today,” I said, patting him on the back.
“Yeah,” he chuckled.
“Feel better?” I asked.
“You know,” he said, turning to look me in the eye. “I actually do.”
Across the table I saw Amy roll her pretty green eyes and shake her head. As soon as Alfonse wasn’t looking I scowled at her and she stuck her tongue out at me.
I couldn’t believe it, but I was falling for this girl.
Six of us showed up at roughly the same time, and we realized that, again, one of our number was missing. Again those same haunted looks rested on the faces surrounding me.
This time Pedro was missing.
He didn’t stay gone as long Alfonse had, but ten minutes after Frank ambled in and moodily plopped down in his chair, Pedro finally came in, looking cagey.
“No pill?” Billy asked.
Pedro shook his head.
Before the panic emanating from the man could infect the rest of us, Alfonse spoke up. “Don’t even sweat it, brother. You’ll see some weird shit, but nothing’s gonna get you and you’ll probably get your pill tomorrow.”
“Yeah,” he said in a husky, hushed tone.
“You know,” Amy chimed in. “I bet this is a behavior experiment. They’re probably not testing a drug at all, but instead they’re testing us.”
“What do you mean, sweetie?” Carly asked.
“Think about it,” she said. “Does anyone feel any different after taking their pills?”
We all shook our heads.
“Right. Nothing. I mean I feel better, but that’s probably from the regular exercise and the food.” She shook her head. “I think this is a behavioral experiment. Like, okay, let’s tell these test subjects something spooky will happen if they don’t take the pills, give them placebos, and see what happens when they take the placebo away.”
“I don’t speak eye-talian,” Frank snapped. “What the hell is a placebo?”
Amy rolled her eyes. “Placebo is not I-talian. It’s a term used to describe a sugar pill—a pill that doesn’t do anything at all. It’s used in experiments. Like, okay, let’s say you want to test how effective a drug is. You give one group the real drug, and one group the placebo. You compare how people using the real drug perform compared to those who use the placebo.”
“So you’re saying there’s another group of schmucks like us with real drugs?” Frank asked skeptically.
“No,” Amy shook her head. “I’m saying, maybe they aren’t testing a drug, but instead testing us. Do you get it?”
“No,” Frank said gruffly and Amy just threw her hands up in the air.
Carly patted her on the shoulder. “I get you, sweetie. We aren’t all idiots like Frank.”
“Hey!” Frank whined.
“Thank you, Carly,” Amy said, as she patted the older woman’s hand.
Learning our lessons from the day before, we each made a point of not leaving Pedro alone. Pedro, who usually spent most of his time isolated from the group, spent the entire day watching movies with Frank and Billy, or playing computer games with Alfonse, or jumping in the rotation for a match with Amy or me.
It helped, but if you watched him close enough, you could see his eyes darting for the corners. You could see those little hints of fear: the little rivulets of sweat at his temples, the slight tremor in his voice, the way he would jump if someone touched him or spoke to him from behind.
Still, Pedro, and the rest of us for that matter, made it through the day.
Morning came again, and I the question finally dawned on me: was it really morning? How could we know? We could be waking up in the middle of the night and we wouldn’t have a clue.
This thought disturbed me to no end, and I could feel a panic attack come on when I felt someone slap my back. I started and jumped, spinning around on my heel to see Alfonse’s grinning face. “Ease up, brother. Just me.”
“Hey, Alfonse,” I said with a groan. “You’re cheerful.”
“Pills two days in a row,” he declared. Then, leaning in as though sharing some big secret, he whispered, “And the shadows ain’t moved an inch.”
I chuckled. I shouldn’t have. It really wasn’t funny. There was something dreadful about the sentence, something truly horrifying, and yet, the only thing that seemed appropriate was laughter. What’s the saying? We who are about to die salute you? No shit.
Four people were already seated when we got to breakfast—Frank, Billy, and the two women. Six. Again. Alfonse and I looked at each other, a spark of terror rising between us. But Alfonse shrugged and grinned like it was no big deal before heading over to the buffet and grabbing his breakfast tray.
We talked about stupid things that morning. The movies that Frank and Bill had made it through since we arrived, Carly’s favorite author (none of us recognized the name and she went off on this lecture about not knowing good literature when we read it).
It was all fake, an act. The truth was, when Pedro still hadn’t shown up by the time we emptied our trays, we were all scared shitless.
Sure, there was sympathy. We seven bonded, down in the catacombs. But if one of us disappeared, that meant all of us could disappear.
Incidental death, the contract said.
As I write this, I wonder if anyone else remembered that phrase.
We started to file out of the cafeteria when Pedro bust in.
“Yo man, what’s up?” Alfonse said, plastering on a look of good cheer that didn’t fool me.
“They still haven’t given me a pill yet,” he said. Now Pedro looked as though he was on the verge of tears. His big, soft brown eyes were swimming and his eyebrows were raised upwards plaintively.
“Don’t worry, man,” Alfonse assured him. “We got you, brother. Today is the same shit as yesterday, only different date.” Alfonse laughed hysterically at this as we looked on, bemused by his inappropriate mirth. “And ain’t nobody know what the date is down here! HA! Get it?”
“Yeah, real funny,”’ Frank grumbled.
Not really knowing what else to do, we just repeated what we did the day before. We kept Pedro in the group, forced him to socialize. As I watched him… I could tell. It wasn’t working. He would stare at the shadow, or the space under one of the recliners the old men sat in as they watched the TV. He would stare, his fists balled up tight, his feet pushed up to the toes, as though he was making to run at any second.
Pedro put on a good show, but it was for our benefit.
He was scared to death.
Despite the fear that dripped off Pedro, he, and the rest of us by proxy, made it to lights out without incident. I have to admit to feeling grateful I was no longer on Pedro-Watch. He was freaking me out, the way he kept looking behind me. Like there was some great hulking thing, all sinewy muscle and sharp claws and fangs, stalking me, prowling, each silent step drawing closer until it was ready to strike, its sharp, saber like nails ripping through my flesh, my blood spraying onto the pristine white walls.
I was glad the day had come to an end.
I had just slipped beneath my sheets and blanket (pulled? pulled down?) when I heard a banging noise coming from the far wall—Pedro’s cell.
“Hey Pedro!” I shouted. “If you’re going to jerk it, keep the noise down!” I was trying to play it off even as terror as I had never felt it before poured through my body. It was almost tangible, this sense of dread, like I could peel it off my skin and hold it in my hand.
The banging only grew louder until I heard Pedro’s voice, loud, shrill and panicked. “DIOS MIO!”
A scream followed and I leaped from my bed, my sheets and blanket fanning out in a fountain of fabric as I raced for my door. I only barely registered as the wood from the door slammed against the wall, my feet thudding against the ground almost as hard as my heart thudded against my ribs.
The hallway was now doused in darkness. I couldn’t see. Instead I relied on my memory to carry me the few steps to Pedro’s door, following the sound, following the terror. His shrieks ripped through the air, and I heard footsteps, other footsteps, clamoring from all directions and converging on me even as I felt my hand wrap around the doorknob.
“What the fuck is going on?”
“Is he okay?”
The chorus of voices flooded my ear, only to be drowned out by Pedro’s screams. I turned the knob in my hand, but it didn’t budge, barely registering a faint jingling noise as it stood resolute against my efforts. On the other side of the door, Pedro’s screams turned into a sickening gurgling noise.
“What’s happening?” I heard Carly cry, her parchment-like voice cracking from the fear.
“Stand back,” came Alfonse’s deep voice. Reluctantly I let go of the knob.
In the thick, inky black I couldn’t see a thing, but I could feel and hear as Alfonse took a few steps back and charged at the door. A heavy thud rang through the hall, but the door held fast.
“Ow, fuck!” Alfonse cried. I heard him step back again, followed by another, louder thud. Something whispered past my shins, and I heard a crack.
“FUCK!” Alfonse yelled. “My fuckin’ HEAD man!”
“Come on,” Amy said in the dark, and I groped for the man myself, my fingers brushing against Amy’s until we found his mass and hoisted him to his feet.
“Please HELP!” Pedro screamed.
“What do we do?” Carly whimpered.
“Nothing,” Frank’s voice answered. There was a sense of finality to it, grim and ugly.
Billy’s voice came next. “Bullshit, Frank! We have to try!”
More jiggling, and the constant thump of something heavy against wood. Billy was trying to force his way in, even as Pedro’s screams grew louder and louder.
And then there was silence.
Pedro had stopped screaming for at least a minute when Billy finally stopped trying to bust into his door.
“Honey, it’s over,” Carly said. There was a sadness to her voice that filled me with despair.
A soft shushing sound told me that Billy was sliding down against the door until he came to rest against the floor.
No one spoke. No one made a noise. What was there to be said? What was there to be done? They had brought us down here, and despite Amy’s theory on placebos, we weren’t going to make it out alive.
Finally, I heard Frank grunt, “Fuck this. I’m going to bed.”
One by one, our group shuffled off to their cells until the only person left with me outside Pedro’s door was Amy.
She said my name, “I don’t want to be alone tonight.” Her voice was small and weak.
“I got you,” I said.
We held hands so we wouldn’t lose each other in the dark. I took the blankets and pillows from my room and she led me to hers. She slept in the bed and I slept on the floor. Of course she offered me the bed, but… I know, stupid, right?
We were probably going to die and here I was, still trying to be a gentleman.
No one talked at breakfast the following morning. Or at lunch. Even at dinner, there was nothing but silence. Just five pairs of eyes, each filled with horror, each looking like mice that had just heard the screech of an owl in the moonlight.
The only one of us who seemed unaffected was Frank, his smug smirk unabated by the terror from the night before. Frank, I realized, just didn’t give a damn.
Billy must have seen this too as he stopped watching old movies with Frank, instead pestering Carly about her books or trying to hang out with Alfonse on the computer. I watched Frank as Billy pointedly avoided him.
Frank wore an expression that said he clearly didn’t give a shit.
Dinner that night was a kind of vegan pizza that tasted like cardboard. Amy sat next to me, scooting in close so that we touched at the hip. I could feel a heat rising up within me, and my skin tingled, wanting so desperately to reach out and touch her, really touch her, to explore what it felt like to drink in her soft skin, to look into her eyes and feel what she felt.
She was scared. I was scared, and yet that drew us closer.
Our dinner almost done, I looked at her out of the corner of my eye to discover she was doing the same thing. We stared at each other, submerged in some alien primal place that was a mix of fear and longing. I could have kissed her right then and there, in front of the others.
But there were footsteps. For the first time in… I’m not sure how long… we saw one of the three doctors from the indoctrination. Dr. Bell, with his high cheekbones and beautiful salt and pepper hair, sauntered into the cafeteria.
“I know you are worried about your friend, Pedro,” he said. He flashed us all a warm smile we could almost believe in. “I have come to reassure you that everything is perfectly all right, and the event that occurred last night falls well within the parameters of our experiment.”
“Bullshit,” Frank quipped under his breath.
“On the contrary,” Dr. Bell said, looking directly at Frank. “i assure you everything is perfectly fine. We collected a great amount of data from Pedro, and are quite pleased with the results. He will be cared for quite well, I assure you all.”
Dr. Bell smiled magnanimously at us and walked out of the cafeteria, even as we tried to ask more questions.
The cafeteria door swung shut behind him, leaving us in a pregnant, uneasy silence. Amy scooted even closer to me, her green eyes peering at me from beneath her shards of pink hair.
“I’m scared,” she said in a small voice.
“I know,” I said. “Me too.”
I slept with Amy again that night. Not like that, of course. I was still taking the floor. That may seem like a raw deal to you, but remember, I was used to sleeping on concrete with nothing but cardboard for comfort.
Besides, I wanted to keep her safe.
We walked side by side to breakfast the next morning. Despite the horror, despite Pedro’s screams, I couldn’t help feeling this incredible warmth when I was in Amy’s presence. It was that kind of feeling that couldn’t be sucked out of me by the oppressive fluorescent lights.
It could, however, be utterly demolished by Alfonse.
“I knew it!” he yelled with glee from behind us.
We turned and glared. “What?” I snapped.
“Yall’s getting’ it on!” he mocked. Alfonse started dancing slow, thrusting his pelvis as he sang, “When I get that feelin’ I need… ooohh sexual healin’.”
“You’re such an asshole, Alfonse,” Amy barked, but her cheeks were red with embarrassment.
“Nah, I’m just fuckin’ with ya,” he said through his grin. “Come on y’all, whose hungry?”
The three of us entered the cafeteria. I felt like Dorothy, you know, from Wizard of Oz. We were all just walking down the yellow brick road, and sure there might be a wicked witch waiting for us, but hell, she was vulnerable to water and at the end I could click my ruby slippers together and go home to a nice place on a farm.
It was a nice thought. One I hoped would last, but as I sat down with my food, I could feel the question hovering over us all, almost as tangible as the fiberglass trays before
us. Who didn’t get a pill this morning?
Billy just stared at his food, his hands in his lap and the corners of his mouth turned downward in an almost comical frown.
I tried to ask, but the words died in my mouth. “Hey Billy. You, uh…”
The eyes that looked back at me carried the weight of condemnation with them. He didn’t part his lips to speak, just shook his head before looking down at his bowl of cereal.
Frank’s face screwed itself up into a look of disgust. “Oh who gives a fuck, Billy. So what? I didn’t get any pills this morning either.”
We all gaped at Frank.
“Don’t look at me like that. I think lil miss pink hair over here has it right. They’re just fuckin’ with us and these pills. They’re going to stop giving all of us pills and we’re going to see some spooky shit, and that is it. End of experiment. Give me my money and leave me the fuck alone.”
“Yeah, what Frank said,” Billy said, motioning with his fork. His voice sounded defeated, though, and his features were sullen.
Alfonse, sensing Billy’s dismay, threw an arm around his shoulder. “Don’t worry, man. We got you.” Then he turned his gaze to Frank and said, “We got you both, even if you don’t want it, ya cranky bastard.”
Frank snorted in disgust. “You want to do me a favor?” he grunted as he stood and carried his tray over to the disposal receptacle. “Get me a fuckin’ burger.”
Now that Alfonse had received his pill again, he seemed revitalized, and rededicated too.
In the common room, he drug a chair up beside Frank and Billy’s usual spot and started watching movies with them. Hell, he wasn’t just watching, he was hosting, picking what movie would be next, and taking care to watch only comedies.
Alfonse’s laughter filled the common room, drowning out nearly all other noise. Eventually Carly took her romance novel back to her room. Meanwhile, Amy and I developed the habit of waiting until Alfonse took a breath before either of us tried to speak.
Despite Alfonse’s efforts, Billy continued to look more and more worried, and Frank just seemed to grow crankier.
Midway through their first movie after lunch, Billy stood up and muttered, “Screw this!”
Shaking his head, he stalked out of the room. Frank looked sideways at Alfonse, snorted, and followed after. Alfonse rose to his feet and looked plaintively at Amy and me.
“I’m just trying to help,” he said, almost in a whine.
Before either of us could come up with something to say, Alfonse plopped down in front of the computer, slammed on the headphones, and started clicking away moodily on the mouse. I’m not sure what the allure of the computer was for Alfonse; we had no internet. Still, that had become his safe place down here.
I looked at Amy. “Are you all right?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know. I’m scared.”
I wanted to comfort her, to tell her there was nothing to be scared of. But all that came out of my mouth was, “Me too.”
Dinner was quiet We all wore hunted looks on our faces. Even Alfonse, who had made such a great show of being cheerful earlier, was now pushing around the brown rice on his plate with no intention of putting any of it in his mouth.
No one looked worse than Billy. Billy, with his thick Southern drawl, was usually upbeat and quick to smile. Now he just stared at his food, his brown eyes dark and low. I wanted to give him solace, to assure him everything would be okay. That would just be another lie.
A part of me knew that he would be the next to die.
If there was anyone at the table that didn’t seemed bothered by recent events, it was Frank. The slight look of disdain that always graced his features was still there, but no more than usual as he scooped forkful after forkful into his mouth. When he had scraped his plate clean, he looked over at Billy and asked, “You gonna eat that?”
Almost imperceptibly, Billy shook his head. I don’t think it would have mattered as Frank was already scooting the tray in front of him.
“Hey!” Amy scolded.
“What?” Frank said. “I’m hungry.”
When this was met with a disapproving look from Amy, Frank added, “Easy there, kitten. If this is gonna be my last meal, I’m gonna have my fill.”
I could feel the anger vibrating off Amy, and knew she wanted to do something. I placed a hand on hers and just shook my head. For a moment her eyes fell upon mine, and I could see the rage within them, burning, but only on the surface. Beneath, there was something stronger, something infesting her like a disease—fear.
There were no more words spoken at dinner, and one by one we quietly dumped our trays and left the cafeteria. Amy and I were the last two to leave.
“Do you want to…” she started to say before the words slipped into silence and her eyes slid to her feet.
My heart slammed against my chest. Somewhere I felt ashamed. We were down here, in the heart of fear, and I was thinking about my dick. How pathetic.
Besides, I knew that wasn’t what she was asking for. She wanted to feel safe. I could understand that. I wanted to feel safe too. Without forcing her to finish the question, I nodded.
I felt her slip her small, slender hand in my own, and we went to bed.
Why am I putting this in here? Some might say it isn’t important. When you are done reading, maybe you won’t think so. I don’t know. But it seems to me, after seeing everything that I’ve seen… Survival isn’t enough. Even in the face of the end of the world, in the face of evils not yet imagined, maybe, just maybe, love is important.
When you are done reading this, remember. It’s important.
Sleeping on the floor of Amy’s cell wasn’t as bad as you might think. Remember, I’ve slept on worse things than a soft carpet with a decent blanket and a fluffy pillow.
We chatted for a while in the dark. Nothing about the compound or the experiment, but instead, silly things, dreams and impossibilities. What we wanted to do when we got out of here. She wanted to go to Europe. I just wanted to find a job and buy a little house, somewhere out of the city and away from all the concrete and sirens.
Sleep came. I’m not sure when it happened, or where we were in our conversation. It just happened, as it often does. What I do remember is that the lights were still off until the screams filled our ears and shocked us awake.
“What the hell?” Amy hissed.
“Billy!” I barked.
Her shins connected with my spine before I felt her hands reach for me and help pick me up off of the floor. Hand in hand we left her cell and entered the main hallway.
It was filled with the sound of Billy’s terror and the footsteps of the remaining subjects. In the opaque blackness I could hear Alfonse say, “No, man! That’s Billy! What the fuck?”
There was crying too. At first I thought it was Amy, but it was too far away. That’s when I realized it must have been Carly.
All of a sudden the screams grew louder, punctuated by the sound of a door swinging open and slamming shut. Footsteps accompanied the wailing as the cacophony grew nearer.
“Billy!” I cried. “Billy, what’s going on? Are you okay?”
Somewhere close by, I could hear Billy’s voice. He had gone beyond fear, beyond panic. “They aren’t what they say they are!” he said, his voice on the verge of cracking. “Don’t trust them.”
“What the hell do you mean?” I asked. I felt sick. I felt like I wanted to vomit, to purge the darkness from within, but the warmth of Amy’s hand bolstered me, forced me to keep my composure.
“I…” Billy began, but there was another sound of footsteps in the corridor with us, strange, alien. They clacked and hushed, a sound completely different from the soft pats of our crepe soles. It was what I imagined a lizard would sound like, all scales and talons.
Billy screamed louder, and I could hear him, feel him almost, as he ran further down the hall, the strange clacking footsteps galloping after him.
“We gotta do something,” Alfonse murmured.
I listened as Frank scoffed. “Yeah? Like what?”
“Man, fuck you, Frank! You a piece of shit.” Amid the screams I heard another set of footsteps, longer, belonging to someone tall and in decent shape. Alfonse’s.
The remaining four of us waited, unable to see, only to listen to the noises as they grew further away.
I don’t believe in God. I think when I lost my job and was thrust out onto the streets, I lost my faith. Nevertheless, amid the diminishing sounds of screams and footsteps I started praying. I’m not sure what I was praying for, or who I was praying to; in truth, I think I was just asking someone to make all of this stop.
And it did stop, for a moment at least. There was silence, the kind of silence that is almost thick enough to reach out and touch, the kind of silence that buzzes in your ear.
I had just started to convince myself that everything was going to be okay when I heard Billy scream louder than ever before. Abruptly, the scream died, replaced by a whispered gurgling noise that filled the corridor with dread.
“Oh no you fucking don’t!” we heard Alfonse shout. I allowed myself to feel hope at this new development, but then I heard Alfonse’s voice change in pitch, high and shrill and filled with horror.
“No,” he cried. “Nonononononono!”
We waited for his scream, knowing it would come. It never did. There was just silence.
The four of us waited in the corridor, Amy now pressed into my side and shivering. We waited for something, anything, but minutes passed, maybe hours, and all we were met with was continued, thick, pregnant silence.
I don’t know how much time passed, but eventually I heard Frank’s trademark grunt before he sneered, “I’m going back to bed.”
When no one wished him good night, he added, “See ya for breakfast. If you make it.”
Carly, sniffing, padded away, leaving myself and Amy alone in the hallway. She trembled against my body, and my free hand sought for her shoulder to comfort her. I could feel her shake her head against my chest. “Let’s just go to bed, okay?”
I nodded. Realizing she couldn’t see this, I added, “Yeah. Okay.”
I went to take my position, lying on the ground, when she called my name. “Can you come up here, please?”
Under any other conditions, I might have been aroused. But the both of us were too scared, too traumatized by what we heard. I crawled into the bed with her, amazed by how small, how thin and vulnerable she felt as she burrowed against me. We didn’t talk, as though words would bring the horrors we just experienced back to life. Instead, we just lay there, feeling each other’s breath, each other’s pulse, taking whatever comfort we could in knowing that both of us were alive.
Somehow we both fell asleep.
I awoke to see Amy standing in her coveralls and staring at the edge of her desk. I hoisted myself up onto my elbow and asked, “Amy? What’s wrong?”
When she turned, her eyes were red and wide with fright. Then, stepping aside, she revealed that her desk was bare. “They didn’t give me a pill,” she said, her voice hollow.
I flew to her, my hands cupping her face. “It’s okay. Hey, look, this is me, right? It’s okay, I’m not going to let anything happen to you. No. Please don’t cry. Amy, sweetheart. Don’t…”
She turned away, her face streaked with tears, her jaw clenched. “You should check to see if your pill came,” she said coldly.
“Only if you come with me,” I said softly.
She folded her arms across her chest, and for a moment I thought she would refuse, but without looking at me she curtly nodded her head. We navigated the stark white halls back to my cell. It was funny how barren it looked, with the bed stripped down to the mattress. There was a clean pair of coveralls folded neatly on my chair, and I wondered how long they had been there—I hadn’t stayed here in two nights in a row now.
These details melted, however, as both Amy and I looked to the corner of my desk. There, in the same kind of plastic cup that comes with cough syrup, was a little white pill the size and shape of a Tic-Tac.
“You take it,” I said, and I meant it.
Amy scowled at me. “Fuck you,” she spat.
“Fuck me?” I asked, incredulous. “What the hell do you mean? Take the pill!”
“No!” she shouted.
“I don’t want what happened to Pedro and Billy to happen to you!” I shouted back.
“You think I want that to happen to you?” she said. Her voice had dropped from a shout into something of a plea as her eyes, pink and bloodshot, swam in a pool of embryonic tears.
“Amy, I don’t…” I began to protest, but Amy held up a hand and picked the cup up with her other hand.
Even in her fear and sadness, she was so pretty. Even as she brought the cup to my lips with fingers of bone china and eyes I could disappear into, I was helpless to her will.
My mouth opened.
She tipped the pill onto my tongue.
I could feel myself crying even as the strange, medicinal pressure of the pill worked its way down my esophagus.
Through tears she smiled at me, and kissed my lips, the tender touch like a whisper.
We walked hand in hand to the cafeteria where Frank and Carly were already eating. Well, Frank was eating. Carly was crying softly as she stared into a bowl of oatmeal.
Frank met our questioning looks. “No pill,” he said in explanation as he hooked a thumb in Carly’s direction.
“You’re an asshole, Frank,” Amy snapped.
“Yeah, but I’m a living asshole,” he retorted.
Carly continued to stir her oatmeal. Amy and I shared a look. Both of us wanted to say something to comfort the aging woman, but what could we say? Everyone who was not given a pill so far had disappeared, except Frank.
From beneath her mass of wiry red hair, Carly hissed, “I can’t do this no more.”
“Carly…” I tried, but she slammed her spoon into the bowl and chunks of oatmeal sprayed outward in a dull, grayish brown fountain.
“They’re killing us!” she barked. “What the hell you think they chose us for? Huh? Because we’re healthy? Because we’re the right age group? No! They picked us because no one gives a shit if a few beggars on the street go missing! No one’s gonna notice. There’s no family to tell!”
Her words rang through the cafeteria, harsh and cold and true. In their wake, she looked down and in a whisper she shuddered, “We’re all so stupid.”
Amy and I both gaped at her, our jaws unhinged. Only Frank kept eating, unperturbed.
Slowly, Carly shook her head. “I’m done with this experiment,” she declared.
Carly deliberately rose and pushed the tray away from her. With her jaw stuck out, she defiantly strode to the door of the cafeteria. Amy and I glanced at each other before we quickly scuttled after her. Behind me I could hear Frank chuckling sardonically, and in that moment, I hated him more than I had hated any other person I had ever met.
We followed Carly’s compact frame and thick, unkempt, ginger braid as she twisted and snaked through the labyrinth of white halls. It soon became apparent that she was heading for the control room we entered at the beginning of the trial.
At the end of a long corridor were a pair of white double doors set in the far wall. Carly marched towards them, arms swinging defiantly. Beside me, I could sense Amy’s pink hair and her trepidation as Carly reached the doors.
She started pounding.
“You open up!” she ordered. “You open up, you sons of bitches, and you let me out!”
“Carly,” I heard Amy call after her. “Carly, sweetie, come with us, okay?”
Amy’s words rang hollow and unanswered.
“You let me the fuck out of this thing right now!” Carly demanded. “I’m not going to sit down here and let you fucks murder me. You let me out RIGHT GODDAMN NOW!”
Carly kept wailing at the doors. When her fists didn’t force them open, she started kicking at them. I reached for her shoulder and thought better of it, unwilling to test the tempest of her rage.
She screamed at the doors over and over again until the corridor flooded with a calm, soothing voice. It was Dr. Brun. “ The subject will cease her assault on the control room door immediately.”
“Or what, you fucking cunt?” Carly shouted. Her face was upturned, as though the voice came from the ceiling. “Or what? You tell me you goddamn bitch!”
Carly went back to attacking the double doors.
“The subject will refrain from accosting the control room doors. Failure to do so will result in pacification by security forces,” Dr. Brun’s voice said in a cool, unimpassioned voice.
“Fuck you!” Carly bellowed. Her voice was hoarse and raspy. “Go fuck yourself, you stupid whore!” she railed. Now she was trying to dig her fingers into the hairline fracture between the doors.
“Deploying security measures now,” Dr. Brun informed us.
The double doors flew open. “That’s better,” we heard Carly say before the darkness beyond was filled with four figures in white coveralls like ours. At least they seemed like ours at first glance, but they were bulkier, with some sort of body armor sewn into the fabric.
They wore helmets and black, opaque visors.
They were followed by Dr. Vorhauer and Dr. Bell.
Both men were smiling easily, the same smiles they wore on the day we arrived. In Vorhauer’s right hand he held a syringe, its contents were thick and black and dirty somehow, reminding me of motor oil. Vorhauer’s smile did not reach his eyes as he fixed his gaze upon Carly.
She lunged at the two doctors, a throaty, primal cry peeling through the white halls. Before she could reach them, the men in helmets and armor converged upon her, holding her in place.
Dr. Bell spoke.
“I am going to ask you once to please return to your normal activities. We have been pleased with the results of this experiment up to this point, and beseech you to continue your exemplary work.” He showed no emotion, no reaction to the raging woman before him.
“Fuck you! You let me go right fucking now!” Carly spat as she struggled against her captors.
Dr. Bell’s smile didn’t twitch as he held a hand a motioned towards the syringe in Vorhauer’s hand. “Do you happen to know what this is? I am assuming you don’t. It is a chemical cocktail—phenytoin and pentobarbital sodium salts. It is the same solution used for euthanizing household pets.”
“Let me go!” Carly insisted.
Dr. Bell continued as though he hadn’t heard her. “A single milliliter is all that is required to put down a small dog. My colleague’s syringe is currently holding twenty. What that means is that if he were to inject this into you right now, you would die. Is this clear?”
Carly shook and pulled at the men restraining her, her knees bending as though she were a four-year old trying to throw herself onto the floor. Her words were devolving, repeated cries of, “Go! I want to go!”
“This is unfortunate,” Dr. Bell said despite the smile never leaving his face.
Carly didn’t even seem aware of what was going on around her anymore. “I told you,” she hissed, “I told you. Never again! You ain’t laying hands on me never again! I told you! Next time, I’m putting a knife in you you fucking cocksucker, and that’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna fucking kill you you don’t let me go, you understand! I’m going to FUCKING KILL YOU YOU PIECE OF SHIT! NOW LET ME GO!”
Dr. Bell shifted his attention to the anonymous men. “Please detain the subject for the injection.”
Despite Carly’s struggles, her small frame was hoisted upright and rigid. “Lemme GO! Lemme GO!”
“Dr. Vorhauer, if you would be so kind,” Dr. Bell said as he motioned towards Carly with his well manicured hand. Dr. Vorhauer nodded, and approached Carly.
“No! No! I’ll be good! I promise. I’m sorry. You’re right, you’re the king of the castle. I’m stupid, I was wrong! I’m sorry!” Carly’s screams had turned to moans as her head shook violently from side to side.
“Please hold the subject’s head still,” Dr. Bell instructed and one of the men moved behind her and gripped her by the head.
“I’m sorry, daddy! I’ll be a good girl! I promise! You can do whatever you want. I won’t tell anyone, just please don’t hit me again!” Carly pleaded.
By the time Dr. Vorhauer held the needle against Carly’s skin, she seemed no longer capable of words, her voice now nothing more than scared, pained moans.
We watched as the cold metal of the needle disappeared into her weathered skin, brittle and leathery. Carly was whimpering now. Vorhauer pushed in the plunger and the black liquid disappeared one milliliter at a time until there was nothing left.
The noises she made after were unlike anything I had ever heard—the sound of a life of pain and sadness ending in misery. It sounded like she was trying to form words, but all that came out was sorrow. And then there was nothing. Her body went limp, and we knew she was gone.
Dr. Bell nodded at the men that held her upright, and without a word they carried her through the double doors into the darkness beyond. The two doctors stayed behind.
“We apologize for this inconvenience and encourage you to enjoy the rest of your day,” Dr. Bell said, his smile as gracious as ever. Stunned, no one said a thing as the two men turned their backs on us and disappeared, closing the doors behind them.
“All remaining test subjects will recommence their regular daily activities,” Dr. Brun’s voice said. When Amy and I failed to move from our spot, the voice repeated, “All remaining test subjects will recommence their regular daily activities or face termination.”
I looked at Amy. Amy. When we started this… thing, she seemed so confident, so sure of herself. Amy was the product of the streets, of the worst life had to throw at anyone. She was tough, smart, resilient. Now she was barely able to hold herself together.
I slipped an arm around her shoulders and held her close. “Come on,” I said, trying desperately not to cry. “Let’s just go.”
I could feel her head nod against my chest and we ambled away from… we ambled away from Carly. We ambled away from her ghost.
The rest of the day was passed in relative silence Frank watched his movies, chuckling every now and then, his laughter the sound of pebbles scraping against each other. Meanwhile, Amy didn’t have anything to say. I wanted to talk, to find some way to ease her fears, but the words just weren’t there.
We tried playing video games for a while, but she seemed unable or unwilling to use her controller. Eventually I took the controller from her, and led her to a recliner where we watched movies, Amy sitting on the arm of the chair and leaning against me as my arm wrapped around her waist.
I guess we both knew what was coming; we just figured there wasn’t any point in talking about it. It was almost as though if we pretended the horror wasn’t real, it might never come. Maybe, if we didn’t talk, and we didn’t think, night wouldn’t come. If we did it just right, there wouldn’t be the darkness, and the screams, and the blossoms of crimson blood spreading against a white backdrop.
Regardless of how hard we tried, though, dinner came. Amy didn’t talk because she didn’t get a pill that morning. I didn’t talk because I was afraid of losing her. Frank didn’t talk, I guess, because he knew neither of us wanted to hear his bullshit.
I wish we would have talked, though. Without the conversation, even Frank’s bullshit, dinner came and went too fast, and the next thing we knew we were facing another lights out. It’d been days since Frank had received his pill, and tonight would be Amy’s first night without it.
As I dumped my tray in the disposal receptacle, I knew that someone was going to die that night.
Frank smirked evilly at us as Amy and I walked hand in hand out of the cafeteria. By now it had become routine for me to not even bother stopping by my cell, instead heading straight for Amy’s. I’m ashamed to admit, though, that at least to some degree I didn’t want to go.
Somehow Frank had found the formula—he’d figured out how to carry on without the pill. I entertained the thought of asking Frank, but knowing the man as well as I did, I figured he’d just tell me to fuck off. Amy, on the other hand…
I didn’t want to think about it. I wish I could turn off that part of me that cared, but the thing was, I knew she was scared, and I knew she needed me, so when she took my hand and guided me back to her cell, I was helpless to resist.
We crawled into bed together, me ready to spoon her as we had done the night before. But as I started to get comfortable, I heard her whispers in the dark, small, vulnerable, irresistible. “Make love to me. Please?”
I can’t tell you how long it had been since I had been intimate with a woman. Definitely not since I had been shunted to the streets, where urine and vomit had become my cologne and the height of fashion was whatever clothing I could salvage from the local Salvation Army. But Amy, she was taut, and lithe, and melted at my touch.
The sensation of being inside her was a revelation, but even that was nothing compared to her kisses, sweet and caring and desperate.
I didn’t last long the first time. But Amy was understanding, and after a few moments of rest, we went at it again, this time long and hard, pouring our souls into the act until we were both spent, giggling and exhausted, our sweat mingling with our struggling breaths in the perfect dark that wrapped itself around us.
I fell asleep with her in my arms.
When I woke up, she was gone.
“Amy?” I said, my eyes bleary with sleep sweeping the room. Nothing.
I checked her bathroom, but it was unused since the night before. “Amy?” I said as I left her room and started jogging down the white hallway. Panic boiled in my gut as my jog quickly turned into a sprint. I checked the gym, and the common room, but her pink hair and slight frame were nowhere to be seen.
I was about to enter the cafeteria, but something turned me away. I’m not sure what it was, exactly, but as I sit here writing this, I think… I think I was just trying to prolong learning the truth. I wasn’t ready to face the fact that Amy was gone.
Out of habit I padded my way to my cell and opened the door.
I sat down on my bed, my eyes falling to my lap. I had held her, smelled her, felt her. I had loved her. The kind of life I had lived, I hadn’t known that kind of love before, and now, as I write this, I’m not sure I’ll have a chance to know it again. I wanted to cry. Somewhere inside, deep, that place untouched by a lifetime of hardship and pain, I did.
I love Amy. Still. I just want that known, even if it doesn’t really matter to the world.
I love her.
Eventually my eyes fell upon the desk, to where the clear plastic cup with the white pill normally sat there, waiting for me.
There was nothing there.
In my head I searched my room frantically, overturning the mattress, looking in the bathroom, under the desk, sprawled on all fours, and studying the carpet for the pill. But I knew better. It wasn’t there. Numb, I pulled the door closed behind me.
You take the pills to keep them away. That’s what they said. But they had stopped giving pills. That part of the experiment was over.
I should have been overcome by grief or fear, but by the time I finally pushed my way into the cafeteria, I felt nothing. Frank sat there, slathering a piece of toast with jam, looking as though nothing wrong had happened. How could he? How dare he? Amy died last night! Carly died yesterday! Billy and Alfonse and Pedro. All gone, and here was this fat piece of shit, unconcerned about anything other than making sure he had spread enough jam onto his toast.
I glared at him as I slammed my breakfast tray down onto the table.
“You’re girlfriend’s gone, I guess,” he smirked. His watery eyes surveyed me, and curling his lips into a half smile he continued, “And by the looks of it, someone didn’t get a pill this morning. Tsk tsk tsk.”
“Fuck you, Frank,” I spat. I looked down at the toast and fruits and cereal that made up my breakfast. I wasn’t hungry.
“Listen, kid,” Frank said. “I’ve gone without the pills since the day Billy bought it, okay? Do you know why I’m still here?”
“Why?” I asked bitterly. I really didn’t want to hear what the old fucker had to say, but if he was going to say it anyway, I might as well play along
Frank laughed, and I wanted to punch him. “Because, kid,” he said when his jowls stopped shuddering with laughter, “I just don’t give a shit. Listen, I’ve been out on the streets longer than you’ve been alive. Before that, I was in the war. I’ve seen shit you couldn’t dream of. These… whatever the fuck they are… monsters? They ain’t shit compared to what I’ve seen. Hell, if they killed me, it’d be a mercy.”
“Maybe they should get on that then,” I said, bitterness and hatred oozing throughout my words.
Frank nodded. “Oh, they will. They will, trust me on that kid. Ain’t none of us getting out alive.” He crammed the toast into his mouth and chewed for a little bit, his piggy eyes holding me in their gaze the whole time. Finally, after a dramatic swallow, he spoke again, “But let me tell you something.”
Frank leaned in close, his voice dropping to a whisper. “You’re gonna see some shit, kid. And it don’t stop with the shit Alfonse was saying either. Yeah, you’re going to see the shadows move, but it gets worse, way worse. Didja know I saw what got Billy?”
I shook my head. Frank nodded.
“Yeah,” he said. “ Billy’s room was right next to mine, and when he started screaming, I looked out my door, just like all of you idiots. Billy, well, he just took off running down the hall, and I saw this… thing scurrying after him, low, like an animal.”
“What did it look like?” I asked.
Frank shrugged. “Hard to say,” he said finally. With a plastic knife he started to spread a glob of jam over another piece of toast. “But I’ll tell you what I did see. Slitherin’ around the corner, pale as the moon, I saw this.. well, I’m not sure exactly what it was, but it looked like the tail of a snake. It was sharp, but it slithered, you know.”
I could see the image in my head, the dark, amorphous shape skittering after Billy, good-natured Billy, so quick to laugh. And I could see the tail, sharp, and thin and slick, sliding along the white tiles bathed in black, sounding like parchment slipping along parchment.
With a terminal nod, Frank said, “That’s what the end looks like, kid. Shadows and snake tails.”
I mumbled something about him being a miserable old fuck as I took my tray to the disposal receptacle, and marched out of the cafeteria without sparing the man so much as a glance.
That day was impossibly long. I missed Amy. It was surprising how boring the compound could be without her, without her small frame nudged against mine, her fresh, welcoming scent filling my nostrils. I missed the little jokes we told to pass the time, and the contests we had playing video games.
I missed how she made this compound not feel like it was the end.
But she was gone, as was Carly and her romance novels, Billy and his good humor, Pedro and his quiet stoicism. I missed Alfonse. Of all the people I could have been stuck in this compound with alone, it had to be fucking Frank.
Frank spent the day in his usual chair, watching black and white movies and cackling at the screen as though whatever was happening was particularly funny. At lunch he tried to strike up conversation, but I just ignored him.
Frank could go fuck himself for all I cared.
I worked out and I tried to find a decent book to read. The whole time lights out loomed before me, this dark, intangible thing bearing the promise of death with fangs and talons and tails like those of a snake. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t push that image from my mind.
Dinner came, and I had no appetite. In a strange way, I sort of looked forward to Frank and his asshole routine. Frank being an asshole was a kind of normalcy that was comforting. But by dinner, even Frank seemed cagey. Gone was the cantankerous old shit that didn’t give a damn about what was happening.
I could see the fear in his eyes. I could see it in the way he fiddled idly with his pasta without really eating it.
Screw you Frank. You were a tough old shit right up until I needed you to be.
We left the cafeteria without saying so much as a word to each other. What was left unspoken was the realization that one of us would not be there in the morning.
I went to my room, clicked off the desk lamp, and eventually drifted off to sleep.
There were nightmares. I dreamed I was back out on the streets, Amy at my side, the both of us taking refuge in an old cardboard box that once housed a refrigerator. Outside our shelter, the people of the night prowled the rain-slicked streets. Hookers. Dealers. Bangers. One by one we listened as they screamed and were snuffed out, a slithering sound smothering their life into silence. Amy and I kissed, hard and deep passionate kisses, as though the affection we shared could drown out the death that surrounded us.
The screams, harbingers of death, grew louder, closer. We just kissed harder, our clothes shedding like the scales of a python, our naked skin sliding against each other. Next thing I knew, we were making love, Amy’s nubile form undulating above me as my body jerked and twitched in ecstasy. The chorus of death rose and harmonized with Amy’s moans while pleasure and terror boiled inside of me, building me to both climax and something primal, a survivalist’s instinct.
Just as I was about to explode, Amy looked down at me, her eyes, wide, her pupils mere black slits like those of a reptile. Her tongue oozed out between her lips, long, oily and black, splitting into two sharp prongs.
She looked like she was about to say something when a fist, large, impossibly large with black talons like swords wrapped around her waist. Her eyes went wide in horror as she was ripped away from me. Her screams filled the night just as sorrow and loss filled my soul.
That’s when Frank’s voice, rough, like a dirt road, cut in. “Come on, you cocksucker. Come get it!”
I opened my eyes to a thick, impenetrable darkness. I had awoken from my dream, but Frank’s voice still called out in his husky voice. “Come on you slithering fuck! I’m not afraid of you!”
I threw off my sheet and blanket, my feet already carrying me to the door. Down the darkened halls, I followed the sound of Frank cursing. Somehow I found it in me to smile; the old fuck was fighting back, even after watching so many before him die.
I hung a sharp right around a corner and saw orange-yellow light spilling from the rectangle of Frank’s doorway.
“Like I told the kid, I ain’t afraid of you. Come on, let’s see what ya got!”
I reached Frank’s doorway, but what I saw there made me freeze, something ancient forcing me still. Somewhere, in my evolutionary past, there was a mammal that lived among dinosaurs. When it spotted a T-rex, something instinctive told it that the only way it could hope to survive was to stay as still as possible.
That program, somehow, had passed on through centuries and eons to me.
I watched, still as stone, as Frank taunted the thing before him. It perched on all fours, elbows and knees jutting out at sharp angles like a lizard. Also like a lizard, it had a long, thin tail that coiled and slithered like a snake. Its head was aimed at Frank, and in the glow of the desk lamp I could see its tongue, pink and grotesque as it probed the air.
Atop its head was a shock of sandy blond hair, and in that moment I knew the thing that was between me and Frank was Dr. Vorhauer.
“Hungry, you slithering fuck?” Frank challenged it. “Well come on then! I’m a fucking all night buffet, you ugly son of a bitch!”
The lizard-like Vorhauer launched itself at Frank, its teeth sinking into Frank’s neck. Blood fountained from the point of impact in a crimson mist as Frank swore and shrieked from the pain. I stood rooted to the floor, immobilized by the horror before me. Red flowers of blood blossomed against the white walls and floor, and I stared at them mesmerized until Frank’s voice jerked me back into reality.
“What are you doing, kid?” he struggled to say. “Get the fuck out of here!”
That was all I needed. Not knowing where else to run, I sprinted back to my cell, slamming the door shut behind me. In the dark, I reached for the chair beside the desk and worked a few feverish minutes to jam it under the doorknob. The whole time I could hear Frank moaning in agony.
Frank was dying, and I was doing nothing to help.
After I was sure my door was barricaded as much as I could manage, I paced the cell, not sure what to do next, my mind filled with little more than static when I barked my shin against the bed frame. Without thinking I turned on my desk lamp.
On the floor, directly in front of me, was another lizard thing. This one was slightly smaller than the Vorhauer one, and the mane of slick black hair told me that this was Dr. Brun. Before I could say anything else, she heaved herself up onto her hind legs and covered my mouth. Her hand felt strange against my skin, papery and brittle, but there was a sense of muscle and bone underneath.
It felt like she could snap my neck whenever she wanted to.
“Shhh,” she hissed. “Be silent.”
Her voice sounded strange, not at all like the voice we heard over the announcing system or during indoctrination. It was hushed, and hoarse. If sand could talk, this is what it would sound like.
“I’m here to help,” she said in her strange, ancient whisper. “If you don’t scream, I’ll take my hand away.”
I nodded, hoping she would take that for compliance. With relief I felt her hand slip from my mouth, the talons of her black claws drawing sharp, white lines across my skin.
“What the fuck is going on?” I asked in a whisper.
Dr. Brun appeared to consider the question, her yellow eyes and oblong pupils directed to the ground for a moment. Finally she started to explain. “You’ve been chosen to test a drug. The drug makes it impossible for your kind to detect my kind. My kind have been trying to find a way to walk among your people for a very long time.”
“What are you?” I asked.
“We are ancient,” she said. “We’ve been among you for as long as your histories record. Once, we were looked upon as gods. Then as monsters. When your kind started to develop weapons, we hid, taking to the caves and digging underground.
“For many centuries we hid, feeding off of your weak, your feeble, those you would not miss. But we longed the days when you worshiped us. For many of our kind, there could be no satisfaction until the day had come when we could leave the shadows and take our rightful place as the dominant species of this planet.”
It would have been hard to believe, if it weren’t for the fact that this was told to me by some lizard woman. Even now I feel that description is a little unfair. Yes, they had tails like lizards and walked like lizards, but Brun’s skin wasn’t far from ours, pale and free from scales. Across her whole body wove a lattice work of black veins like ivy.
Even now, in her true form, her face looked almost the same as it had on the first day. If it weren’t for the veins and the reptilian eyes, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference.
“If that’s so,” I interrupted, “why aren’t you trying to eat me?”
“Because,” she started to answer, “not all of my kind agree that we should be the only dominant species. There are many of us that recognize the advances that humans have made, that believe the only way we can continue is by working with your kind, not dominating it.”
“That’s really very nice,” I said. I could still feel the adrenaline pouring into my system, the desk behind me pressing into my back. “But that still doesn’t explain what you are doing here.”
Dr. Brun scuttled toward me impossibly fast, her forelimbs reaching for the chair and hoisting her up until she was face to face with me. “You can tell the story,” she explained. “You can stay alive until those who are like me come to rescue you.”
“I hate to tell you this,” I said, repulsed by her. Up close, she didn’t look human at all, her face too pale and rubber, her intense eyes were somehow alien. “But I didn’t get a pill today. I think that means I’m on the menu very soon.”
Dr. Brun held out one of her forelimbs. Despite her reptilian form, her forelimb still ended in a human hand. Resting on the palm were a small number of the pills.
“What do these do, anyway?” I asked as I scooped the pills into my hand.
Sliding back down to all fours, Dr. Brun said, “They prevent you from being able to see our true form.”
“So why would I want to take them then?”
“Because they are toxic to us. For as long as the pill is in your system, we can’t eat you,” she explained matter-of-factly.
“That didn’t stop them from killing Alfonse or Carly,” I spat bitterly.
“They put the experiment at risk,” Dr. Brun said. “They may be alive now if they hadn’t intervened.”
“Bullshit,” I spat. “There was no need…”
“If you want to stay alive, you’ll take the pills,” she interrupted. “They’ll keep them away until the others arrive.”
“And when will that be?” I asked.
“Soon,” she said. “I hope.”
I opened my mouth to ask another question, but I felt her hand cover my mouth again. I shuddered.
“No more questions,” Dr. Brun said. “I can’t stay, or else I’ll be discovered. Take the pills, and write down what has happened here. Just in case.”
“In case of what?” I asked, dread numbing whatever bravado had been stirred within me.
“In case my allies are too late,” Dr. Brun said grimly. With that she returned to all fours and skittered to the door. She gave me one last look. Despite her reptilian form in that gaze I could see both hope and despair battling each other. She turned the door knob.
I looked down at the palm of my hand. Six pills. If Dr. Brun was wrong, if she didn’t have allies, or was just lying, I had six days to live.
With a soft click, Dr. Brun turned the knob, opened the door, and slithered out into the hallway. Emotionally exhausted, I collapsed to the floor. I vaguely remember popping a pill into my mouth and swallowing hard.
This was beyond anything I could imagine. It couldn’t be true, could it? There just… No.
But even as I was rejecting what had just happened, the things I had just seen, I heard a voice just outside my door.
“Dr. Brun,” came Dr. Bell’s voice. “What a surprise to see you down here. It isn’t your turn in the rotation, is it?”
“No, Dr. Bell,” she said and I could hear the worry in her voice. “I was just observing the progress of the experiment.”
“And why is that, I wonder,” Dr. Bell said. He sounded amused.
“I’m new, doctor. I’m just trying to learn,” Dr. Brun explained.
“Save it,” Dr. Bell said coldly. “I know you are working with them.”
A sound like a sword being removed from its sheath slipped under my door and filled my ears. Choking noises followed, along with a sound like rain, wet, splattering against the ground.
Moments later, my door swung open to reveal the handsome form of Dr. Bell. “Ah,” he said.
“You’re still awake. You should get your rest. We still have lots of testing to do.”
Fear froze me in place as I gawked at him. He was his same, tall, gaunt, self, dressed impeccably beneath his lab coat. His salt and pepper hair was slicked back and neat. Yet, underneath it all, I knew what he really was. I knew about the black talons, and the slithering tail.
What was worse was, by the way he looked at me, he knew also.
The week that followed was torture. There was no one, no one to eat meals with, no one to play video games with. Frank and Billy were no longer at their chairs, watching old movies and chuckling the way old men do. I missed Alfonse and his infectious optimism, and even Carly and the way she curled up with her romance novels.
I missed Amy. I missed the way she smelled. The way her tiny body felt against mine.
They were all gone. Instead, the only companions I had were Dr. Vorhauer and Dr. Bell. And oh yes, I saw them quite often.
Every day they came down to these sterile halls and asked how I was getting on. They wanted to know if I liked the food, or if the pills were causing any adverse affects.
This morning, at breakfast, Dr. Bell even sat down and ate with me. He asked about my upbringing, and how I had come to be homeless. He asked about Amy, like he didn’t know. I’ll hate that bastard beyond the grave for that.
He asked about the pills.
“How many do you have left?” he asked as he popped a grape into his mouth.
“Plenty,” I lied. Even as I said it, my hands dug into my pockets to confirm that I had taken the last pill just an hour earlier before breakfast.
Dr. Bell smiled. “I know you’re lying,” he said. And then, as he went to throw his breakfast tray into the disposal receptacle, he shot over his shoulder, “I’ll be seeing you again very soon.”
This notepad is almost empty now. I think I got everything. I’m sorry if I missed anything. It’s almost morning, or at least whatever we have come to know as morning. It’s been so long, I’ve been down here so long, I’m not sure when the sun actually comes up.
I do know the last pill will be wearing off soon. And someone will be coming.
I just hope it’s the right someone.